‘Till’: Danielle Deadwyler Delivers a Career-Defining Performance as Mother of Emmett Till

Till” makes the dark side of American history personal, bringing home the wrenching pain of an infamous racist crime through the eyes of a mother. If you don’t know the story of Emmett Till, you should. In 1955 14-year-old Till was kidnapped, beaten and killed in Mississippi for being Black and supposedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman. Till’s mother, Mamie, made sure the public saw her son’s horribly deformed body in an open casket, the images then becoming an iconic example of the violence in the Jim Crow South. With cinematic eloquence, director Chinonye Chukwu tells this story in a way that is compelling and full of necessary anger. There must be room for movies that make us angry and uneasy, because we will never bring real change until we comprehend the human experience of injustice.

Emmett (Jalyn Hall) is first introduced as a kind-hearted, overly friendly 14-year-old in Chicago living with Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) and her boyfriend, Gene (Sean Patrick Thomas). At the insistence of his grandmother, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg), Emmett is sent on a trip to Money, Mississippi to visit his cousins and great uncle, “Preacher” Mose (John Douglas Thompson). Raised in Chicago, Emmett is unfamiliar with just how tediously cruel the unwritten codes of conduct are in the segregated South, which he soon enough learns on the train when the Black passengers are pushed to the back car. Outgoing and friendly like any naïve kid, Emmett’s cousins continuously warn him. Then, he enters a store on the fateful day of Aug. 24, 1955 and interacts with Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett). White men, including her husband, come searching for Emmett and he disappears. Days later, Mamie learns the horrifying truth about what has happened when her son’s beaten and disfigured body is found. Mamie makes sure photos are taken and published in the magazine Jet, which brings to the forefront the very brutality of racism.

One of the great advancements in the recent renaissance of Black American cinema, propelled by the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, is how long overdue stories are being told on the screen. Just as important are the points of view these stories are given. Typically even a strong film about the Civil Rights era, such as “Mississippi Burning,” would be told from a white savior perspective or by finding heroes in the FBI. “Till” is about Mamie and her shattering experience. By turning this into a film with the driving theme of motherhood, Chukwu makes the drama even more searing. A historical event becomes a personal and terrifying moment for a family. As a character, Emmett is one of the most heartbreaking embodiments of the tragedy of American racism. He’s a naïve child living in a country where doing all of the impulsive, clueless things of a child can mean death. So sober is the writing by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, that we get a real sense of the enclosed reality of living in what amounted to an apartheid state. There are no convenient white heroes because in a place like Money, Mississippi, Black residents are forced to essentially run their own society to keep safe from a violent social order. Sending Emmett to visit relatives means Mamie sitting awake at home scared her son may wander around like any normal person. What exactly happened might be one of the film’s more controversial aspects, since eyewitness accounts differ. Did Emmett whistle at Carolyn Bryant as a funny gesture, or was it a habit of his due to a stutter which was then misinterpreted? The movie settles for the former, but does it matter? Nothing justifies how Emmett Till was killed.

Chukwu’s technique in telling this piercing story is poetic. She films in silky textures and knows what to show and what to keep unbearably hidden. When Emmett is kidnapped, we need only a wide shot of a barn at night, the screams echoing through its low-lit windows. But when Mamie must look upon her son’s broken body, Chukwu keeps the camera at bay and then brings the awful truth to our eyes. It is not exploitation but treated like a moment we must see if we are to understand the scope of what happened. When Mamie gently touches the body’s swollen, bruised limbs, the scene becomes tender but also full of a needed, silent fury that erupts when she can’t take it anymore and weeps aloud. The real Mamie wanted the world to witness what had been done to her son, and this movie asks to do the same. To not look upfront at this case is to willingly ignore our real, collective history. When Mamie goes to court the trial has no heroics. The racists who killed Emmett are arrogant, shameless liars and show no remorse. Society simply functioned this way in 1955 America. Where Emmett was killed there had already been political killings and more would follow. But recall that only recently, a memorial to Till had to be upgraded so it could be bulletproof.

If Danielle Deadwyler does not receive awards recognition for her performance than we will have to wonder what exactly moves a modern audience. What Deadwyler portrays is the strength of will some individuals can summon to endure a personal catastrophe. NAACP officials and other social organizers try to make her see the importance of telling Emmett’s story, since the courts are useless, so Mamie feels both pain and sudden, urgent social pressure. We are with her in moments of private agony, and then the camera stays on Mamie during her testimony in court, withstanding the badgering questions, making it clear in sophisticated terms that she warned her son about the need to be careful in a world of idiotic hate. Whoopi Goldberg has less screen time, yet is absolutely devastating as the grandmother haunted by having been the one who urged Emmett to visit Mississippi. “Till” may be a historical drama, yet it rarely feels artificial like other films in the genre. Through the cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, which resembles the lush work of directors like Barry Jenkins, Chukwu evokes the disorientation that accompanies loss. A day may feel unreal and minutes like hours. The music by Abel Korzeniowski enhances the emotional impact with evocative power.

Historical memory and a film like “Till” are the only justice Emmett will probably receive. Out of all the key players, Carolyn Bryant, who is cold and detached in the movie, is still alive. A Mississippi grand jury refused to indict the 88-year-old just this year after new evidence emerged. She has also admitted the accusation that Till physically accosted her was a lie. Anti-lynching legislation named after Till was barely passed this year. As with many other such injustices, a work of art will have to be the enduring testimonial for viewers now and later to learn about what took place. Chukwu has done this story justice with a searing performance by Deadwyler and wonderful cinematic craft. We still need movies like this to remember. As the novelist Helen Hunt Jackson wrote when she witnessed when confronting the genocide of our indigenous population, “there will come a time, when to the student of American history, it will seem well-nigh incredible.” 

Till” releases Oct. 14 in select theaters and expands Oct. 28 in theaters nationwide.